NorthEast United, profligate in front of goal, scraping to get a spot in the knockout stages of the Indian Super League (ISL) for the very first time, on Wednesday, took on a free-scoring Delhi Dynamos who have already been assured of a place in the semi-final. It was always going to be interesting.
In a do-or-die battle at home, NorthEast got an encouraging 2-1 win over Delhi and gave their fans a victory they deserved. Keeping in mind how their season has progressed, it was not unusual to see the Indira Gandhi Athletic Stadium in Guwahati not being packed on Wednesday evening. But rest assured, if the Highlanders could get a win against Kerala Blasters in a virtual quarter-final on Sunday, the home stadium would be a full house for the semi-final.
It took an hour for the first goal to come, and it was NorthEast's Seityasen Singh's wonderful effort that broke the deadlock. Romaric, who has arguably been the player of the season for the Guwahati outfit, doubled the lead in the 71st minute, while Marcelinho scored his ninth goal of the campaign for Delhi in stoppage time, to reduce NorthEast's victory margin.
Credit to the NorthEast coach and the players for ensuring that Delhi, who have scored the most number of goals in the competition, were kept at bay.
There was a certain disjointedness about Delhi, and a lack of fluidity which is in stark contrast with their performance against FC Goa at home. NorthEast, on the other hand, were disciplined and organised.
While Florent Malouda kept trying to pull the strings for Delhi, nothing significant happened for the visitors with NorthEast keeping them silent. Richard Gadze would curse himself for missing a gilt-edged chance in the opening exchanges when he was set up by Malouda. But with just the goalkeeper to beat, he put his shot wide of goal.
Of course, it wasn't just Gadze who missed easy chances. The NorthEast players also committed the same mistake. There probably won't be a match where NorthEast's lack of ruthlessness in front of goal has not been a problem. In the 18th minute, Emiliano Alfaro was found wanting while Seityasen couldn't get the better of Delhi custodian Toni Doblas in the first half. Katsumi Yusa, typically energetic throughout the match, also sent his shot agonisingly wide in the dying stages of the match.
NorthEast would hope Nicolas Velez, who was replaced by Robert Cullen in the first half due to an injury, would be fit for the remainder of the tournament as losing an in-form striker could be a huge blow for the side. Cullen, however, made the most of this chance and did rather well on Wednesday. It was he who set up Romaric with a defence-splitting ball in the 71st minute.
TP Rehenesh finally got a chance for NorthEast as he replaced the injured Subrata Pal in goal. He had a solid outing, and would likely be between the posts for the clash against Kerala Blasters.
All in all, NorthEast thrived in the second half and did deserve the victory on the night. They kept themselves on the front foot, didn't panic when goals didn't come and worked patiently until they broke the deadlock. This was significant, because NorthEast have dominated proceedings in other matches this season too, but for all their brilliance at keeping possession, they have often panicked in the opposition third.
The major positive from this match would be NorthEast's decision-making, which was impressive both with and without possession. After being deficient with their end product for much of the season, NorthEast improved massively in the last two matches, netting five goals. This enormous upswing has come at an important time for Nelo Vingada's side, and if the side can play like this against the Blasters, the chances of them securing a win are quite high.
A draw would have been enough against Delhi but getting three points would make NorthEast confident for the tough match in Kochi. Viganda's team has to win that tie, while a draw would be enough to see Kerala Blasters progress to the semi-final.
The win over Delhi, even when a draw was sufficient, obviously is a better result for the Guwahati franchise. They have the talent, they have a hugely experienced coach, and they have the backing of arguably the most passionate fans in the country. The hard-fought draw over Chennaiyin FC, and now this win over Delhi Dynamos shows NorthEast have the credentials to get to the summit. Importantly, they also have form on their side. It is now up to them to go and get the title.